What I Discovered About Happiness in Finland from Outside mturner

On my first inhale after leaving the puddle jumper that had brought us to the Kittila Airport, my nose hairs froze. Despite it being 9 a.m., the stars still winked overhead, here at the top of the world. It was minus 4 degrees outside.

Descending the gangway onto the icy tarmac in Finnish Lapland was a dream come true. I recognize I’m in the minority, being a person whose idea of fun is hanging out above the Arctic Circle in January, but exploring polar night in the frozen north was my bucket list adventure.

Well, it wasn’t actually polar night, I reminded myself as my husband, Topher, and I drove the 20 minutes from the airport to the ski town of Levi where we’d be staying. Polar night–that time at either pole when the sun never crests the horizon–had ended a couple weeks earlier and days were hovering around four hours in length already. But it was close enough.

I’d gotten incredulous questions from more than a few people before coming here. Northern Finland? In January? Really? I, myself, had dubiously seen Finland atop the World Happiness Report since 2018—it was once again named #1 in March 2024—and wondered how a country known for pickled herring and the wild vacillations between light and darkness could really be the happiest on earth. That couldn’t possibly be good for your circadian rhythms, right?

Saunas are a part of daily life in Finland, and there are multiple public facilities across the country. (Photo: Julia Kivela/Visit Finland)

But then, I stumbled upon photos of fluffy-looking frozen Nordic pines against cotton candy skies, dog sleds racing through pristine forests and the Northern Lights dancing across the heavens. There was an undeniable pull that I couldn’t get out of my head. I’m a visual, gut feeling traveler. I don’t particularly care about ‘best of’ lists or wonders of the world. All it takes is a scroll through Google Images to convince me where to go. That’s how we ended up in Lapland, the Arctic region that spans Norway, Sweden, and Finland. It wasn’t easy or cheap to get here, and I knew I wouldn’t be doing my chronically Vitamin-D deprived self any favors by choosing an even colder, darker destination than my home in the Colorado Rockies, but I couldn’t look away.

Our plan was to spend five days skiing, dog sledding and, hopefully, spotting the Northern Lights. On that first, jet-lag-hazed day, we made our way up the mountain, or “fell” in Finnish, to the top of Levi Ski Resort during the scant few hours before darkness. Down at the lower elevations, the sun hadn’t quite risen above the horizon, but up on the fell, we were bathed in glorious, golden light. The trees, coated with a layer of ice and snow, looked like characters out of a children’s book. The weak sunlight and sub-zero temperatures kept everything perfectly frozen. I’d been in Finland for mere hours, but I was already feeling the magic sweep over me, only intensified when I caught sight of reindeer munching on lichen in the snow.

How does Finland keep earning the World’s Happiest Country top ranking? The report, produced by Gallup, the Oxford Wellbeing Research Centre, the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network, and the WHR’s Editorial Board, measures happiness by asking the residents of countries across the globe a single question. After all, no one is better equipped to report on happiness levels than the folks who are being measured in the first place.

The reindeer are hard to miss in Finnish Lapland, and 33 percent of the country is designated as reindeer husbandry area.  (Photo: Mikaela Ruland)

Gallup asks poll participants to evaluate their lives on a 0 to 10 scale and then the rankings are taken from a three year time frame. The report then goes on to explain these rankings using six factors: GDP per capita, social support, healthy life expectancy, freedom, generosity, and corruption. In 2021-23, Finns ranked their lives at 7.741, an entire point above my home country of the United States and six points higher than the lowest ranking country, Afghanistan.

Economist Jeffery Sachs put it like this in a CNBC documentary:“The idea is a good balance of life.”

Each year when Finland is crowned the Happiest Country in the World again, a slew of articles comes out trying to explain it. Last year a Finnish psychologist pointed to a lost wallet experiment, touting community trust as a factor. The country’s tourism board highlights reasoning that also makes for good travel marketing: the ability to see the Northern Lights, sauna culture, warm and welcoming locals.

The desire to quantify, and therefore be able to replicate, such an essential human experience as happiness makes sense. Humans have been chasing it since the dawn of time. The more I researched happiness though, I started to think that it was a slippery, elusive state that’s more than the sum of its parts. I spent five days above the Arctic Circle in Finland, getting out in nature, immersing myself in culture, eating incredible food, and being present. By the end of my trip, I could feel deep in my chest that there was something special about this place. I hadn’t seen the sun since we’d left Denver. Every time we left the Airbnb, even if it was just for dinner, I donned every item of clothing I’d brought with me. This included a pair of clear-lensed goggles that kept my contact lenses from freezing. The cold reverberated so deeply in my bones, I wondered if I’d ever be warm again. It was madness. But I’ve never enjoyed a trip more.

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Video by Mikaela Ruland

It’s easy to quantify why Finns are happier than Afghanis, but it’s harder to explain why they’re happier than their Scandinavian counterparts. I’ve yet to visit Denmark or Iceland, the other two countries that reside in the top three spots on the 2024 World Happiness Report, but I do know how Finland made me feel. Happy. Here’s why.

1. Finland Makes Access to Nature a Priority

Kilometers to miles had gotten muddled up in my head and halfway across the frozen lake, icy winds buffeting us from seemingly every direction, I knew it was time to bail. The permanent sunset was staining the sky a dusky pink, and I tried to focus on the slide, glide, slide, glide of my cross-country skis on the groomed trail. When we finally reached the shelter of the trees, I pulled my fingers out of my gloves for a precious few seconds to check the map. Luckily for us, the entirety of Levi was ringed by miles and miles of groomed ski trails. We certainly weren’t going to make it the entire loop I’d charted for us, but we easily picked another trail and headed back towards town.

Finally free of the wind, I began to notice the other folks we passed on the trail. There were skate skiers and traditional skiers, dog walkers and snowshoers, families with kids and older couples whose ski suits looked straight out of the 80s. On occasion, our trail crossed a snowmobile track. Above us, on the fell, downhill skiers and snowboarders carved the slopes. Despite the cold and the shortly impending darkness, locals and tourists alike were out enjoying the incredible access to nature that Levi provided.

The cross country skiing trails in Finnish Lapland are plentiful and wide open, and the Finns use them to stay active all winter. (Photo: Mikaela Ruland)

When I researched Lapland, I was overwhelmed by choice. There are dozens of towns scattered across northern Finland, even more if you factor in Sweden and Norway, each offering its own flavor with a distinct central theme: easy access to top notch outdoor recreation of any style. After another kilometer, we were planting our skis in a snowbank and sitting down to eat pizza and warm up. We didn’t even have to get in a car— the trails were accessible from our Airbnb’s front door.

One day, we skied to a reindeer farm, our pockets filled with salty licorice, and drank cocoa in front of a roaring fire in a little cafe. Another day, we were given a brief overview and sent careening down a trail behind our own team of eight sled dogs with All Huskies Sled Dog Safaris. Topher and I took turns driving, one of us bundled up in the sled while the other threw their weight into the turns, stepped desperately on the brakes on the downhills, and ran behind the sled on the uphills. It was exhilarating, gliding through the snowy forest and working in tandem with the enthusiastic dogs to cross the snow. When our guides released all eight teams of dogs after the run, it was the best kind of chaos, as more than 60 elated animals ran through the yard.

2. Finland Stays Connected to its Heritage

That first day when we ventured up the fell, we were on our way to Samiland, a UNESCO Observatory cultural village site. The extensive indoor exhibit introduced us to the Sami, an Indigenous group of people whose traditional homelands encompass northern Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia. We learned about the different groups of Sami, their history, culture, and traditions, and then went outside to wander through a replica Sami village which included two very adorable, live reindeer. Reindeer were, and remain, an integral part of Sami culture. We’d come to learn that reindeer herding was not just a relic of Scandinavia’s past, but a vibrant and important part of the region’s present and future.

Thirty-three percent of Finland is designated as reindeer husbandry area. In Norway and Sweden, reindeer herding remains the exclusive privilege of the Sami people. In Finland, any EU citizen can own reindeer, as long as they are approved by the reindeer herding district’s board, but the industry still remains largely Sami. Visiting Samiland, which was embedded in Levi Ski Resort and shared a building with a luxury hotel, I was struck by how the Indigenous culture was at the forefront of the narrative here in Finland, a stark difference to the U.S.

Ruland experienced a traditional Sami meal in an underground hut at Saamen Kammi. (Photo: Mikaela Ruland)

That evening, we waited with a group of expectant diners in the lobby of the Hotel K5 in Levi before several servers in traditional dress appeared to lead us outside and down into the Earth. At Saamen Kammi, visitors like us can experience a traditional Sami meal in an underground hut. In the circular room, we sat around the central cooking area, taking in our surroundings. The walls and ceilings were made of pine boughs and there were reindeer hides on the walls. The smell of meat cooking over hot coals wafted up to us, making our stomachs grumble. As we ate our meal, we learned that many of the ingredients were foraged from the surrounding forest, a practice that feels like it should be relegated to the tables of fine dining restaurants but is commonplace in Finland. In a world exceedingly saturated with styrofoam and plastic packaged foods, it’s a piece of their heritage that they’ve somehow retained. After dinner, we were treated to music and dance by a Sami father-daughter duo performing traditional Joik music.

Samiland and Saamen Kammi were just two examples of the ways in which a town with a year round population of 600 weaves their heritage into everyday life. From reindeer farms to restaurants to warming huts along ski routes, we never forgot about the history and culture of the place we were visiting.

3. Finnish Food Is Delicious and Healthy

When I pitched this vacation to my husband, I made sure to include the caveat that it wouldn’t be a “food trip.” While we usually plan our travels around all the incredible things we’re going to eat, I couldn’t imagine that winter in northern Finland was going to be that kind of trip. I’d even gone so far as to book Airbnbs with kitchens so we could cook our own meals if the food proved to be disappointing. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

My first hint that I was mistaken came in the Helsinki Airport, an unexpectedly beautiful space that looked like Ikea’s chic older sister. After a delayed flight and missed connections, we’d unexpectedly had to spend the night in an airport hotel, eating granola bars for dinner. Early the next morning we were ravenous and filled up our trays at the airport cafe with cardamom buns and thick toast topped with lox. It was the best airport meal of my life.

The author was surprised by how fresh and good the food was in Finland, from salmon to reindeer to desserts with local cloudberries. (Photo: Visit Finland)

While Saamen Kammi was a beautiful cultural experience, it was also one of my favorite meals ever. Dinner started with steaming bowls of clear salmon soup, perfumed heavily with dill. Around the central fireplace, we filled our plates with roasted and sauteed reindeer, planks of salmon set above the flames and covered with a creamy dill sauce, mashed potatoes and winter vegetables. For dessert, we had squeaky Lappish bread cheese with preserved cloudberries. I was blown away. Every ingredient was locally sourced and despite feet of snow outside, the meal in front of us was deeply connected to the land. The reindeer meat was so good that I couldn’t even muster guilt when I conjured their cute faces to mind. Rich and sweet, without too much gamey flavor, it quickly became my favorite component of Finnish meals.

Another night in Levi, we ordered sauteed reindeer with lingonberries and a reindeer burger at Nili Poro, an intimate, warm spot run by a local reindeer herder. The interior was covered in pelts and wood and candles flickered on the tables. We drank glogg, spiced mulled wine, and asked for seconds of the incredible “fell bread” the Sami chef bakes on his mother’s stove every morning. At Ristorante Renna, my husband had reindeer sausage and lingonberries on a pizza and I gambled and ordered a smoked salmon pie, complete with cucumber, dill cream sauce, and arugula. It was the most interesting–and delicious–pizza I’ve ever eaten.

While we didn’t find much of a fika culture in Finland, at least in Levi, we were delighted by Campfire Barista at the base of the slopes. On a cart pulled by snowmobile, owner Steffan brews coffee and crafts lattes over an open fire as you watch. Our lattes tasted like spruce and woodsmoke.

And I couldn’t get enough of the grocery store bins full of black licorice, tasting strong and salty. I brought bags of it home on the plane. What started out as an adventure vacation turned into one of my favorite food trips.

4. The Northern Lights, Saunas, and an Appreciation for the Present Moment

I’d imagined that the Finns somehow managed to rank as the happiest country on Earth despite the near constant winter darkness, but during our week in Lapland, I learned that they did so in spite of it.

Yes, during the few daylight hours each day we encountered plenty of locals and visitors alike on the trails, taking advantage of the light to ski and snowshoe and walk, but when darkness settled back in, we still passed folks pushing strollers, meeting friends for a meal and going about their day, all with a smile on their faces.

Many of us fell in love with Cecilia Blomdahl’s slice-of-life social media videos from Svalbard (an island close to the North Pole) during the pandemic, and I saw her perspective on polar night reflected on the faces of many of the locals we interacted with: “Polar night is something we get to experience, rather than endure.”

The glow of streetlights on snow, the stars overhead, and the crisp feeling of a long night quickly won me over, but my excitement for the darkness mostly stemmed around the My Aurora Forecast app I obsessively started checking as soon as the color faded from the skies each day. The first few nights, I had alarms set throughout the hours I should have been asleep to check the Northern Lights prediction. I knew it was a slim chance—so many people I’d chatted with who had been to the Arctic had never spotted them—but I was hopeful.

Seeing the Northern Lights was a bucket list moment for the author. (Photo: Mikaela Ruland)

Halfway through dinner on our third night, I got an alert. I checked the webcams, scouring the skies on my screen for any hint of green. There it was. Or were my eyes playing tricks on me? I’d been staring at the tiny box for days, maybe I was hallucinating. My husband confirmed it was definitely a green glow. We left our half-eaten meal on the table and rushed up to the top of the fell where the skies were dark and fairly clear. We waited in the freezing car, our breath fogging up the windows, and peeked outside every few seconds. Then, all of a sudden, the Northern Lights appeared.

Tendrils of green danced across the dark skies, coming from every direction. We stumbled around the parking lot, giggling like little kids and staring at this precious wonder before us. I was shocked by how dynamic they were, undulating ribbons in constant motion. We stayed out in the cold for 20 minutes until the clouds obscured our view. That miraculous show ended up being the only time all week we’d spot them, despite having booked a glass-roofed Airbnb the next day. I’d dashed off a few quick shots on my camera, but left my phone in the car. It’d been a magical moment I’d allowed myself to be fully present for, a rarity these days.

We’d read a Sami legend that the Northern Lights came from a fox brushing her tail along the snow, the moonlight reflecting on the snowflakes she’d swept up. On the drive home, a fox crossed the road in front of us, pausing in our headlights. The solar cycle is peaking in 2024, meaning the Northern Lights are supposed to be some of the best of our lifetime. I can’t think of a better way to connect with the present moment than by chasing them across the Arctic.

After each frozen adventure, we’d return to our Airbnb and turn on the sauna. With one sauna for every two Finns, the country is replete with them. Sauna culture is such an integral part of everyday Finnish life, that it was inscribed into UNESCO’s list of intangible cultural heritage in 2020. Sauna isn’t just about cleansing the body, it’s also about cleansing the mind and finding a sense of inner peace. It wasn’t hard to find vacation rentals that included them—in fact ones without were the rarity. When the rocks were hot, we’d step inside and ladle in water, letting the steam sink into our bones and melt the lingering cold from our bodies. In a sauna, you can’t scroll social media or check the news. With no windows to the outside world, the only option is to be present in the current moment. To sit and to let my shoulders relax and just be. It was a foreign concept, but one I quickly fell in love with.

On the plane ride home, my head started to pound. It took me half an hour to realize it was because the sun was streaming in through the windows, my eyes already unused to the bright light. I closed the window and let myself bask in the darkness for a few more hours.

Ruland at the Backcountry Reindeer Farm in Lapland (Photo: Mikaela Ruland)

Mikaela Ruland is the Associate Content Director for National Park Trips. This year, she is exploring as much of Europe as she can. She recently skied in Zermatt and the Italian Dolomites. 

The post What I Discovered About Happiness in Finland appeared first on Outside Online.

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